Archives For Silent Sustained Reading -SSR

“I find people confusing.” 

That particular quote is spoken by Christopher John Francis Boone, the 15-year-old narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, who describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties.” Christopher lives in Swindon, England, and his behavioral difficulties are more along the lines of Asberger’s or high functioning autism or savant syndrome. This diagnosis explains his attitude towards his peers, 

“All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are.” 

Or his obsession with truth:

“Metaphors are lies.” 

Or his appreciation for math:

“Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.”

Christopher’s observations are also what make him interesting to our students who read the novel in literature circles in grade 10. Students at this age connect with the author, Mark Haddon, and his belief that the novel is not about a character with Asperger’s Syndrome, but rather,

“…a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. It’s as much a novel about us as it is about Christopher.”

CIDNT coverWe have well over 100 copies of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime in our book room. They are a collection of books purchased at book sales ($1-$3 a copy) throughout the state of Connecticut for the past five years. These copies are most likely the discards from book club members who, 10 years after its original publication date (2003), donated their used copies. The only problem in locating  copies of the text at a book sale is determining on which genre table the copies will be shelved. The novel is classified as a mystery, but it is also considered a young adult novel or trade fiction, and was published in England simultaneously in separate editions for adults and children.

Fortunately, I can see that iconic bright red cover from a distance, the same one with the dog cut-out onto the shiny black cover underneath. When I distribute the texts, no matter how I threaten to make sure the book comes back in pristine condition, there are students who will trace and retrace that cutout until the die-cut shape of the dog becomes the shape of a blob.

The students read the novel independently first, usually during a unit on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, before coming together in literature circles. I would like to think that the character of Christopher would enjoy being paired with Shakespeare’s murder and intrigue since he is uncovering a sinister killing of a neighborhood dog. Students are given time in class to read the novel as SSR, and the literature circles begin once the play is concluded. The students are organized into smaller groups, where they work together to choose a “big idea” that can be found in the novel. The “big idea” can center on large concept words such as bravery, fear, change, determination, trust, or belief. Once a big idea is selected for the day, each group has several tasks to complete, with each member of the group completing one task. The students receive one grade for the completion of these assignments, and disputes are resolved through peer review feedback sheets. The roles for the literature circles are fairly traditional:

  • Group leader/discussion director/writer: leads the discussion and writes the response that answers the question with contributions from the other members.
  • Notes taker/quote maker: keeps notes during the discussion, finds, and writes the passages that support the group’s conclusions about the big idea.
  • Artist: draws a series of cartoons or a particularly important scene that represents the big idea.
  • Poet: creates a found poem of at least 20 lines that supports the group’s conclusions.
  • OrganizerGets the paper, plans the poster, keeping everyone on task and contributing to the overall success of the assignment!

Because we are a BYOD school, we have on occasion also included some “digital” tasks where group members can use a software platform to create an Animoto or a Voice Thread as a way to illustrate the big idea.

The literature circles usually meet four or five times covering different sections of the book depending on the big idea selected. At the end of each meeting, students their findings to the class with each member explaining the contributions from his or her role.  The rubric is centered on Common Core State Standards that require the inclusion of evidence to support a position. For an exemplary rating, a group will produce the following:

POSITION: clearly addressed task, purpose, and audience

  • One page that answers question about the big idea
  • Found quotes in novel to support a group’s position; wrote them on the chart paper
  •  a cartoon or illustrated scene that supports big idea
  • Creation of a “found” poem of at least 20 lines, using words from the novel.

COMPOSITION:

  • Response answers the question; it has a thesis, and at least two quotations for support.
  • Poster displays the quotations you have found; they are written carefully & cited.
  • Art work is neat and colorful and expresses the big idea
  • The poem is of required length and is expressive and creative.

STANDARDS of the DISCIPLINE

  • Response has no more than two errors in mechanics, spelling, capitalization.
  • Quotations are blended.
  • Quotes have no misspellings, etc.

As they read, many students become curious about Aspergers and autism, so we have incorporated video supplemental materials including a speech on the inspiration for the novel by Mark Haddon; a film on autism activist Temple Gradin; and a quick 6 minute video on another savant Stephen Wiltshire: The Human Camera.

Sometimes, if time allows, we have included mysteries from Christopher’s idol, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For the honors students, we have added the text of the Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Hound of the Baskervilles” for independent reading (audio text) . On other occasions we have used adaptations of Sherlock Holmes mysteries in short audio texts (Story Nory site).

While the addition of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has richly enhanced our curriculum of World Literature, the price was not expensive, roughly $250 for the entire set of books. This contemporary novel by a British writer allows us to connect the reading to other fiction (mysteries) and informational texts including speeches and documentaries. In the beginning of the novel, Christopher explains,

“In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them. It is a puzzle. If it is a good puzzle you can sometimes work out the answer before the end of the book.”

By the end of the novel Christopher comments on the mystery as a “good puzzle” saying, “I solved the mystery…and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” That assessment is a powerful reason to share Haddon’s novel with students…if they can draw from a character like Christopher the inspiration that they too can do anything.

The release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Progress Report for 2012  (“Nation’s Report Card”) provides an overview on the progress made by specific age groups in public and private schools in reading and in mathematics since the early 1970s. The gain in reading scores after spending billions of dollars, countless hours and effort was a measly 2% rise in scores for 17-year-olds. After 41 years of testing, the data on the graphs show a minimal 2% growth. After 41 years, Einstein’s statement, “Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results,” is a confirmation that efforts in developing effective reading programs have left the education system insane.

The rather depressing news from NAEP in reading scores (detailed in a previous blog) could be offset, however, by information included in additional statistics in the report. These statistics measure the impact of “reading for fun” on student test scores. Not surprisingly, the students who read more independently, scored higher. NAEP states:

Results from previous NAEP reading assessments show students who read for fun more frequently had higher average scores. Results from the 2012 long-term trend assessment also reflect this pattern. At all three ages, students who reported reading for fun almost daily or once or twice a week scored higher than did students who reported reading for fun a few times a year or less

The irony is that reading for fun is not measured in levels or for specific standards as they are in the standardized tests. For example, the responses in standardized tests are measured accordingly:

High Level readers:

  • Extend the information in a short historical passage to provide comparisons (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Provide a text-based description of the key steps in a process (CR)
  • Make an inference to recognize a non-explicit cause in an expository passage (MC – age 13)
  • Provide a description that includes the key aspects of a passage topic (CR – ages 9 and 13)

Mid Range Readers:

  • Read a highly detailed schedule to locate specific information (MC – age 13)
  • Provide a description that reflects the main idea of a science passage (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Infer the meaning of a supporting idea in a biographical sketch (MC – ages 9 and 13)
  • Use understanding of a poem to recognize the best description of the poem’s speaker (MC)

Low Level Readers:

  • Summarize the main ideas in an expository passage to provide a description (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Support an opinion about a story using details (CR – ages 9 and 13)
  • Recognize an explicitly stated reason in a highly detailed description (MC)
  • Recognize a character’s feeling in a short narrative passage (MC – age 13)

(CR Constructed-response question /MC Multiple-choice question)

Independent reading, in contrast, is deliberately void of any assessment. Students may choose to participate in a discussion or keep a log on their own, but that is their choice.  The only measurement is a student’s willingness to volunteer the frequency of their reading, a form of anecdotal data.

According to the graph below (age 17 only), students who volunteered that they read less frequently were in the low to mid-level ranges in reading. Students who volunteered that they read everyday met the standards at the top of the reading scale.

Graph showing that 17-year-olds who read for fun score higher on standardized tests

#1 Graph showing that 17-year-olds who read for fun score higher on standardized tests

Sadly, this NAEP data recorded a decline in reading for fun over the last 17 years-exactly the age of those students who have demonstrated only a 2% increase in reading ability. The high number of independent readers (“reading for fun”) was in 1994 at 30%.

Steady decline  in the number of 17- year-old students who say that they  "read for fun."

#2 Steady decline in the number of 17- year-old students who say that they “read for fun.”

So what happened the following years, in 1995 and 1996, to cause the drop in students who read voluntarily? What has happened to facilitate the steady decline?

In 1995 there were many voices advocating independent reading: Richard Allington, Stephen Krashen, and Robert Marzano. The value of independent reading had been researched and was being recommended to all districts.

Profit for testing companies or publishing companies, however, is not the motive in independent reading programs.There are no “scripted” or packaged or leveled programs to offer when students choose to “read for fun”, and there is no test that can be developed in order to report a score on an independent read. The numerical correlation of reading independently and higher test scores (ex: read 150 pages=3 points) is not individually measurable; and districts, parents, and even students are conditioned to receiving a score. Could the increase of reading programs from educational publishers with leveled reading box sets or reading software, all implemented in the early 1990s, be a factor?

Or perhaps the controversy on whole language vs. phonics, a controversy that raged during the 1990s, was a factor? Whole language was increasingly controversial, and reading instructional strategies were being revised to either remove whole language entirely or blend instruction with the more traditional phonics approach.

The sad truth is that there was plenty of research by 1995 to support a focus on independent “reading for fun” in a balanced literacy program, for example:

Yet seventeen years later, as detailed in the NAEP report of 2012, the scores for 17-year-old students who read independently for fun dropped to the lowest level of 19%. (chart #2)

While the scores from standardized testing over 41 years according to the NAEP report show only 2% growth in reading, the no cost independent “reading for fun” factor has proven to have a benefit on improving reading scores. Chart #1 shows a difference of 30 points out of a standardized test score of 500 or a 6% difference in scores between students who do not read to those who read daily. Based on the data in NAEP’s report, reading programs have been costly and yielded abysmal results, but letting students choose to “read for fun” has been far less costly and reflects a gain in reading scores.

The solution to breaking this cycle is given by the authors of The Nation’s Report Card. Ironically, these authors are assessment experts, data collectors, who have INCLUDED a strategy that is largely anecdotal, a strategy that can only be measured by students volunteering information about how often they read.

The choice to include the solution of “reading for fun” is up to all stakeholders-districts, educators, parents, students. If “reading for fun” has yielded the positive outcomes, then this solution should take priority in all reading programs. If not, then we are as insane as Einstein said; in trying to raise reading scores through the continued use of reading programs that have proven to be unsuccessful, we are “doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.”

As the first semester begins to draw to a close, I need to check in and see what progress the 9th grade students are making with Silent Sustained Reading (SSR). Our school’s move to a block schedule (A/B) days of 83 minute classes has given us the opportunity to provide students with 10-20 minutes of SSR every English class period. I try very hard not to put any restriction on what students read, although I still urge them to try and “read up” to more complicated texts. I wrote about the rationale for this program in a previous post, “Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet…We’re Reading”.

To facilitate the SSR program, there are two carts in the room with books I have purchased through the secondary market, mostly thrift stores and public library book sales (hence the title of the blog “Used Books in Class”). Each cart holds about 150 books; at $1-$2 a book, I have spent about $500 on the 300 books available for SSR.

A wide selection

A wide selection

The most popular titles in circulation these past few months have been:

Lauren Myracle’s TTFN and TTYL
John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice (any one in the series)
Catherine Gilbert Murdock ‘s Dairy Queen
Gabrielle Zevin’s Elsewhere
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones
Patricia McCormack’s Cut
Carl Deuker’s Gym Candy
S. A. Bodeen’s The Compound
Sarah Dressen’s  Dreamland
Nicholas Sparks’s Dear John
Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games Trilogy (pick any one of these; they are on EVERYONE’S shelf)

The students are keeping their responses to the books they read on the Shelfari website this year. This is a commercial site tied to the retail giant Amazon, but there are ways to lock down the private groups we have established for each class. Last year, we used Blogger, but there were some glitches with Internet Explorer and Blogger; unless we used a browser like Firefox, the pages kept jumping and commenting was impossible. When students are on the Shelfari site, they can see what other students in the class are reading, and posting titles they have read or plan on reading is really easy. In addition, there are already reviews of the books, so students are forced to add something original to a review of the book. They can read recommendations (for and against the text) and they can participate in a discussion.

This morning I posted the following discussion prompt on Shelfari:

Hello,
You have had 16 weeks of SSR in class-most of the time with your choice of reading materials.
Tell me how you are progressing as a reader. Are you finding enough materials to read? Have you read at least ONE good book? Are you a better reader now that you were in September? Why or why not?

Some of the responses made my teacher’s heart pound proudly:

Over the past 16 weeks of SSR, I’ve probably read 5 or 6 books. Some of them were short, but some were a reasonable length. I’ve really been enjoying the SSR time we’ve been getting because the quiet period of time we get is really beneficial to my reading skills.

I am progressing in my reading. So far I have read three books this year. I am finding plenty to read. I have found many good books, including “Prom & Prejudice” and “Awkward”. I feel I am a better reader than I was in September because I am reading more difficult books than I was before and in September.

Yes I am better reader because last year I read even slower than I do now and I understand more because of the vocabulary words. I am finding enough materials to read. A good book I read this year was Miracle on 49th Street, this was good because it was a very suspenseful book.

But then, there are the honest appraisals that make me concerned about how students select books and a student’s ability to stay focused in a class for 10-20 minutes:

I’m an average speed reader, but I tend to get distracted. I’ve read a lot of good books, but they were in a lot of different genres. It’s hard for me to find books that interest me lately. I feel that my reading skills have changed a little, I’ve been able to understand things a little more.

During the past 16 weeks of SSR I haven’t really improved very much with my reading. I have only finished one book and I am working on another the first was a pretty good length and didn’t take long to read and the other is pretty long. I am a slow reader and I also just never find the time to sit down and read my book. Also, I get distracted while reading my book sometimes, so I haven’t progressed very much in the weeks of SSR.

And then, there are the even more painfully honest appraisals:

I’m a really really slow reader, and tend to get very distracted while reading, so I have a hard time making lots of progress in books. Books that are available to me don’t interest me. There was only one book that I’ve read and liked in my whole life; but there are no sequels. No I’m not a better reader, my reading skills never change, I’m always a slow and easily distracted reader.

The quiet time in SSR may not be “quiet” enough for some students, so I need to think about the physical space being more reader friendly. Apparently, I also need to have some students develop an understanding of what they like to read, and see how I can get those books onto my book carts.

Success with SSR is monitored through student self-appraisal, so I will be checking back in a few months to see if students note any changes in how they are reading. If nothing else, I know that there is power in the shared quiet reading experience we have twice or three times a week. When their heads are bent down in a book, I can feel them read.

The cover is not at all frightening, but the contents are. I had found two copies of Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars at summer book sales ($1.00 each) and placed them on the 9th grade independent reading book carts.  There was not much interest; the paperback measures a hefty 342 pages. But lately, the book is gaining some tractions with some of the freshmen boys.

“It’s about these interviews with survivors of the Zombie apocalypse ” explained Paul to the class yesterday when he volunteered to share what he was reading, “and it is really realistic. You hear how the zombie plague started and how the governments are corrupt.”

When a classmate endorses a book, the other students listen; first person testimonials are very powerful in our independent reading program. I had touted the book early in September to students when they were first perusing the book carts  The storyline was compelling enough for me, a squeamish reader, to appreciate how Brooks made a zombie war a study in political science. How would governments react to an epidemiological disaster? What would our military do to contain a potent virus? What rules would govern the survivors? I found the book to be a heart pounding read, and I read a few paragraphs to the class who listened with interest.

World War Z is told through a series of eye-witness accounts that occasionally connect characters and events. For example, there is the testimony of the fictional Dr. Kwang Jingshu, Greater Chongqing, United Federation of China:

“I found ‘Patient Zero’ behind the locked door of an abandoned apartment across town. . . . His wrists and feet were bound with plastic packing twine. Although he’d rubbed off the skin around his bonds, there was no blood. There was also no blood on his other wounds. . . . He was writhing like an animal; a gag muffled his growls. At first the villagers tried to hold me back. They warned me not to touch him, that he was ‘cursed.’ I shrugged them off and reached for my mask and gloves. The boy’s skin was . . . cold and gray . . . I could find neither his heartbeat nor his pulse.”

There is also very realistic testimony from the fictional General Travis D’Ambrosia, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe:

“Two hundred million zombies. Who can even visualize that type of number, let alone combat it? . . . For the first time in history, we faced an enemy that was actively waging total war. They had no limits of endurance. They would never negotiate, never surrender. They would fight until the very end because, unlike us, every single one of them, every second of every day, was devoted to consuming all life on Earth.”

What was most frightening as I read was my increasing doubt that the hundreds of characters interviewed in this story were fictional at all. Brooks has written post-zombie war interviews of doctors, generals, mayors, and newspaper reporters with remarkable authenticity.

But World War Z is not the only post-apocolyptic zombie book making the rounds in class. Another popular book making the rounds is Jonathan Mayberry’s Rot and Ruin (Benny Imura) the first novel in a series. I often see the rather grotesque cover art sitting on a desk, one eyeball staring up at the ceiling.

A review of Rot and Ruin on Amazon states:
In the zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic America where Benny Imura lives, every teenager must find a job by the time they turn fifteen or get their rations cut in half. Benny doesn’t want to apprentice as a zombie hunter with his boring older brother Tom, but he has no choice. He expects a tedious job whacking zoms for cash, but what he gets is a vocation that will teach him what it means to be human.
Zombie literature seems to cross our class’s gender lines, although Rot and Ruin seems to be more popular with the girls in the class. At present, there are only a few copies available through our school library, so I will be looking out for it at book sales. In addition to these titles, we also have several copies of James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, a series also loosely connected to the zombie phenomenon.
I am not entirely sure what my students’ fascination with zombies means. There are always trends or fads in literature; several years ago handsome vampires were all the rage, and several year before that, wizards ruled the reading lists. So I am aware that this infatuation with all things zombie will eventually fade, but maybe I can convince them to use their own brains as “food” for thought.

Smartblogs recently ran a post by Bill Ferriter titled “Reading Nonfiction is not Optional ” where he argued that there is too much fiction in a student’s reading diet. “The sad truth,” he wrote, “is that fiction still dominates the literacy lives of young readers. Whether they are wrapped up in fantastic exploits written by guys like Rick Riordan or churning through the latest release in the hottest new vampire series, today’s kids rarely make room for nonfiction in their book bags.”

Sad truth? Why is this a “sad truth”? What is wrong with reading fiction? Fiction, like its counterpart non-fiction, offers our student readers valuable life lessons. For example, in an online article in guardian.co.uk September 7, 2011 Reading Fiction ‘Improves Empathy’, Study Finds, Professor Keith Oatly at the University of Toronto who studies the psychology of fiction reports that:

“I think the reason fiction but not non-fiction has the effect of improving empathy is because fiction is primarily about selves interacting with other selves in the social world. The subject matter of fiction is constantly about why she did this, or if that’s the case what should he do now, and so on. With fiction we enter into a world in which this way of thinking predominates. …. In fiction, also, we are able to understand characters’ actions from their interior point of view, by entering into their situations and minds, rather than the more exterior view of them that we usually have.”

Annie Murphy Paul noted the same study in her article in The New York TimesYour Brain on Fiction (3/17/12) writing that, “Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” Apparently, our brains cannot differentiate between the fictional experience and the real life experience, “in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” Furthermore, the simulation of social experience in fiction through a character’s point of view  helps prepare our brains for real-life social interactions.

In other words, while the genre of non-fiction may be the recording of real life, the genre of fiction is critical in preparing readers for real life.

In his post, Ferriter also quoted young adult (YA) writer Walter Dean Myers:

“We all know we should eat right and we should exercise, but reading is treated as if it’s this wonderful adjunct…We’re still thinking in terms of enticing kids to read with a sports book or a book about war. We’re suggesting that they’re missing something if they don’t read but, actually, we’re condemning kids to a lesser life. If you had a sick patient, you would not try to entice them to take their medicine. You would tell them, ‘Take this or you’re going to die.’ We need to tell kids flat out: reading is not optional.”

Ferriter’s paraphrase of Myers’s statement, the title of his post, “Reading Nonfiction is not Optional,” strikes the wrong tone. Myers, a writer of both YA fiction and non-fiction, did not specify as to the genre he endorsed for student reading. Myers was advocating reading, period. Both fiction and non-fiction are critical to our students’ growth and development, not one genre at the expense of another.

Independent reading means a student can choose to read non-fiction OR fiction

Yes, the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (ELA CCSS) call for an increase in non-fiction. The authors of the ELA CCSS created a little chart on page 5 of the ELA CCSS that notes that students should be reading 70% non-fiction and 30% fiction by grade 12. But this is not the ratio for reading in an English Language Arts classroom. That is the ratio for a whole school curriculum.

I am particularly sensitive to the increasing number of attacks on fiction and the need to reducing fiction from the English classroom. Ferriter’s post makes a similar argument and could be associated with the myth that “English teachers will be asked to teach non-fiction”. This myth is directly repudiated in the ELA CCSS document:

“Fact: With the Common Core ELA Standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary non‐fiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.”

In other words, reading must be offered in every discipline, students must read across the curriculum.While Ferriter’s Reading Nonfiction is Not Optional makes the important point that all teachers are responsible for modeling reading, he oversteps when he says, “If you want students to love nonfiction — and you should considering the important role that nonfiction plays in learning — you really do need to stop spending all of your sustained silent reading time figuring out what’s going to happen next to Origami Yoda.” Good SSR programs allow for independent choice in any genre by students. What Ferriter could have suggested that the expansion of SSR to other disciplines would increase reading of non-fiction while having the additional benefit of satisfying the ELA CCSS.

Of course, I often hear arguments from teachers in other disciplines moaning, “What do I drop out of my course to include reading?” which could be interpreted as the reason why the authors of the ELA CCSS felt the need to develop reading and writing standards for History, Social Studies, Science and the Technical Areas. These disciplines need to step up the reading in their classrooms.

But who said reading non-fiction was an option? I can assure Ferriter that English/Language Arts teachers are dedicated to improving student reading. They are not hung up on genre, but when they teach fiction, English/Language Arts teachers are teaching their subject matter. The adoption of the ELA CCSS means that all disciplines must offer for opportunities to share their subject matter. To re-frame Ferriter’s argument to align with the new standards, reading non-fiction in every classroom is not an option, and reading non-fiction in an English/Language Arts classroom can be a choice. After all, that growing body of research shows that fiction is just as important as non-fiction for our students, including what happens in Origami Yoda.

Be vewy, vewy quiet….we’re reading!

Our new block schedule at Wamogo High School has made the school much quieter. We have alternating days, four periods of 85 minute classes; the traffic in the hallway is less, and, thankfully, so are the announcements. This quiet provides an excellent environment for us to continue our practice of silent sustained reading (SSR) at all grade levels, 7-12. We embarked on our SSR program two years ago, and we have noted both the anecdotal success with the program through participant surveys and the reading scores on the CMT/CAPT (State of CT mandated tests).

There are a number of texts on the incorporation of an SSR program in a language arts classrooms. Janice Pilgreen’s book (2000) The SSR HandbookHow to Organize and Manage a Sustained Silent Reading Program has an eight point checklist for successfully implementing SSR.

Using Pilgreen’s checklist (her suggestions in red), here is an explanation of how Wamogo is implementing the SSR program this year:

  • “Students need to be flooded with reading materials.”Our classroom libraries of whole class reads and independent reads are full. We have several carts that we can roll into classrooms of independent reading materials. Some carts are dedicated to specific grade levels or classes. For example, our Memoir class have a cart full of memoirs of all reading levels that students can select. Our school library is one of the few in the state to offer Overdrive® to all of its schools. Region 6 students and staff can easily download ebooks to a variety of devices from our Overdrive® catalog with over 15,000 titles. Students and staff can borrow free ebooks and read them on their iPod, iPad, laptop, Kindle or Nook. Creating a flood of reading materials is discussed also in Kelly Gallagher’s book Readicide. 
  • Appeal: The reading materials should be geared toward the interests of the students who are reading them.” We are sensitive to the wide variety of interests in our school. Many of our students are vocational agriculture students who are interested in non-fiction selections. We include all genres: manuals, graphic novels, historical non-fiction, fiction (YA titles) in trying to find books that interest our students.
  • Conducive Environment: The physical setting should be quiet and comfortable.” The new block schedule has benefitted the SSR program in an welcomed level of quiet in the school day. We do have the students read at their desks; we do not have “comfy chairs”.
  • Encouragement: Students need supportive adult role models who can offer assistance in locating reading material.” Our English Department teachers read with the students. We read the books during SSR so that we can make recommendations and discuss books with our students. Our amazing library media specialist comes in and gives book talks. She has also successfully incorporated popular author booktalks, in person or on SKYPE, with popular writers such as Neil Schusterman, Gordan Korman,and  Laurie Halse Anderson. (I am hoping for a Jon Szeiska interview one day *hint-hint*)
  • Staff Training: SSR doesn’t just happen; the staff of a school should be well versed in the goals and procedures used at the school.” Our department has seen the benefits of the SSR program, and we support each other with strategies to make the program work for us. There are teachers who use SSR time to confer with students, however, we found conferencing  distracted other readers. We also discuss the best times to implement an SSR activity in a block period, and how to measure results. 
  • Non-accountability: This is perhaps the most controversial factor. Pilgreen found that students read more, and had more positive attitudes toward reading, when book reports and such were not required.” In today’s data driven classrooms, this is a difficult, even risky, decision. In 9th grade, we do require one book review per quarter to be placed on a shared class blog, and we do require students to read more than one book per quarter. I also record the start page and the end page (students provide this number) as a way of keeping track of their progress. But, there are no other assessments of their independent reading.
  • “Follow-up Activities: Pilgreen found that follow-up activities such as conversations about books read by students or the teacher encouraged other to try them out.” We do spontaneous book talks. “Anyone reading a good book?” I will ask, “Any recommendations?” Students will share their reactions to a book when asked.
  •  “Distributed Time to Read: A common error made by schools new to SSR is that they have one long SSR period a week, rather than shorter periods that occur daily. Pilgreen found that successful programs have students read for fifteen to twenty minutes daily.” We have found that 15-20 minutes of reading time is ideal. On an alternating block schedule, this gives our students 30-60 minutes a week of quality reading time.

A classroom book cart in Grade 9 with high interest titles

Robert Marzano’s book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, ASCD, (2004) references Pilgreen’s eight steps; he  suggests a 5-Step Process for implementing SSR:

Step 1: Students identify topics of interest to them.
Step 2: Students identify reading material.
Step 3: Students are provided with uninterrupted time to read.
Step 4: Students write about or represent the information in their notebooks.
Step 5: Students interact with the information.

The major difference between Pilgreen and Marzano is the use of a notebook (step 4) for recording which we may incorporate this year in having students respond to prompt. These prompts are centered on story elements (“What similarities do you notice between your character and the archetypal character we study who is on a journey?”) . Our students are using writing notebooks for free-writes (front to back) and notes/vocabulary/grammar (back to front). Their first assignment was to “decorate” the notebooks, and already there are some enthusiastic participants for both decorating and free-writes!Finally Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey make a case for including SSR as a means to acquire content vocabulary in their book  Word Wise and Content Rich, Grades 7-12: Five Essential Steps to Teaching Academic Vocabulary, Fisher and Frey consider SSR as a means to contribute to gains in both background knowledge and vocabulary.

One more reason to implement SSR? The world is noisy. Students have their individual soundtracks plugged into their ears wherever they go; all venues from public transportation to shopping to sporting events have soundtracks; phone ring tones abound. There is a cacophony of sound in a student’s brain during the waking, perhaps even the sleeping, hours.The daily 15-20 minutes we offer students to read may be the only 15-20 minutes in a day where they are forced to be quiet. SSR allows them to absorb information without distraction. Ultimately, SSR at every grade level provides the opportunity for students to shut out the noise of school; SSR teaches our students to be vewy, vewy quiet. They’re reading.

The cold in “Ethan Frome” might be what we need in the long hot summer!

It’s 103 degrees here today in Connecticut during one of the numerous heat waves we have had so far this season. Tomorrow’s forecast bodes no better news. The garden has been drying up; even the most stalwart perennials are buckling under the sun’s intensity. Leaving an air-conditioned home or car means hitting a wall of humidity; my glasses fog over and I am temporarily blinded. A headline on the Reuters website reads, “Heat Wave and Drought Besiege Already Deteriorated US Crops” (July 18, 2012). Suddenly, I have a new appreciation for the heat of Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl in The Grapes of Wrath:

  • People in flight along 66. And the concrete road shone like a mirror under the sun, and in the distance the heat made it seem that there were pools of water in the road. (Ch 12)
  • They were tired and dusty and hot. Granma had convulsions from the heat, and she was weak when they stopped. (Ch 16)
  • The sun sank low in the afternoon, but the heat did not seem to decrease. Tom awakened under his willow, and his mouth was parched and his body was wet with sweat, and his head was dissatisfied with his rest. (Ch 18)
  • While the sun was up, it was a beating, flailing heat, but now the heat came from below, from the earth itself, and the heat was thick and muffling. (Ch 18)

I believe that where a reader has lived or visited contributes to an understanding of a novel’s setting. This does not mean that a reader cannot appreciate the descriptions of Mars in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or Panem’s District 12 in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or on the battlefields on the plains of Troy in Homer’s Iliad or the Congo River in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Indeed, the only way for the reader to “visit” and remember these locations is through the vivid descriptions the author writes. However, there is an advantage for a reader in being familiar with the setting of a particular story, especially where setting is a dominant character. Say, for example, the town of Starkfield in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.

In the introduction, the narrator of the story explains how his employment has brought him to the aptly named Starkfield-“the least habitable spot”, where he “chafed at first, and then, under the hypnotising effect of routine, gradually began to find a grim satisfaction in the life”. Grim satisfaction indeed, as the winter weather in Western Massachusetts, where Wharton sets her ficticious Starkfield, can be mind-numbingly bleak.

“When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of [December] crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the. devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter.”

My most memorable image of the town was Wharton’s description of the graveyard that Ethan and Mattie pass on the night of the dance:

“They turned in at the gate and passed under the shaded knoll where, enclosed in a low fence, the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy angles through the snow. Ethan looked at them curiously. For years that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom. ‘We never got away- how should you?’ seemed to be written on every headstone…”(Ch 2)

This closing sentiment to this passage addresses the way I feel every winter when the dismal drizzle of freezing rain turns every trip in the car into heart-pounding sliding near-misses or when crusted mounds of filthy snow makes walking outdoors a life-threatening experience. My mantra becomes, “I’ve got to get out of this place.”

So how does a reader from Southern California really understand Starkfield? Yes, Wharton is genius at explanation, but that visceral understanding of January in New England is limited if the reader is reading her novel poolside on a sunny day, 78 degrees with a light wind blowing. Wharton can only stimulate the reader’s imagination to understand the kind of wet grey cold that chills to the bone until June. The memory of physically freezing in Western Massachusetts is an entirely different experience.

Conversely, a case can be made for other authors. How can the Wharton’s New England reader really understand the physical and cultural landscape for the characters of Faulkner’s  Yoknapatawpha County ? How does a student from the plains and mesas of Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop comprehend the mansions on Fitzgerald’s East Egg Long Island?  There are so many elements in creating the setting: the temperature and the angle of sunlight during the day, the architecture of the houses or buildings, the landscape and the vegetation, the dialect of the locals, the smell of the foods, and the sounds of the evenings. Each locale has identifying qualities that a great author captures in order to make a setting understandable to a reader. The author’s descriptions will resonate even more with a reader who has a first-hand experience in that setting.

Of course, reading Wharton’s novel in the in the middle of summer anywhere in the United States might be a form of mental air-conditioning. The mind can be a powerful tool into tricking the readers to feel cooler. Imagine the book display: “Feeling hot? Read Ethan Frome!”

Shhhhh….We’ve been very, very quiet in grade 9 this year with our Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) academic experiment in the college prep 9th grade class. 77 students were asked to read a minimum of eight (8)  independent reading books of their choice as part of the curriculum, and to facilitate reading, students were provided 20 minutes twice a week (40 mins total/week) of SSR.  Responses to the independent books were recorded later on blogs or presented in class.

The inclusion of independent student choice texts with the time made available for SSR meant a reduction in the number of whole class reads; four texts remained in the curriculum: Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Speak, and selections from The Odyssey. Classroom libraries were augmented with high interest texts (used books in class) with support from the school library and Overdrive software to allow for a wide selection by students.

So, what were the results? At the beginning of the school year, students took a survey based on questions suggested in Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide. This week, (June 2012) the same students retook the same survey. In order to account for percentage differences in attendance and enrollments, results were also checked using a t-test calculator to determine statistical significance. While there was only little change in students viewing reading as “fun” or “easy,” 57% to 59% or a 2% increase in the affirmative, the other data gathered from the survey indicates a positive shift in the attitude of our students towards themselves as better readers coupled with an increase in time spent reading  outside of class.

According to our September survey, 39% of our students rated themselves as “good” readers, 42% rated themselves as “average” readers, and 21% rated themselves as “poor” readers. The difference in June was very statistically significant (t-test) with 66% of students rating themselves as good readers; 30% of students rating themselves as average readers, and only 8% of students rating themselves as poor readers.

Responding to the prompt “I read independently every day and look forward to my reading time” in September;  9% of students responded “usually”, 35 % of students responded “sometimes”, and 56% of students responded “rarely”. However, by June, the difference in student attitudes her was also very statistically significant (t-test) with 19% of students responding “usually” (up 10%),  53% of students responding “sometimes” (up 21%), and 33% responding “rarely” (down 23%).

Finally, not only did the SSR program did increase the number of books read  by students for class, students indicated (very statistically significant) that they increased the number of additional independent books they read over the course of the year. Students reading no addditional books dropped from 32% to 11% while students reading 1-2 books increased from 52% to 58%, students reading  3-4 books increased from 13% to 22%, and students reading over 4 books increased from 3% to 8%.  These numbers complemented the finding of students who increased their overall “not for school reading/reading for pleasure” for 60 minutes or more (5%), for 30-60 minutes (17%) , and for 30 minutes or less (17%). The number of students who admitted to doing no additional reading dropped from 22% to 15%.

So what are the implications of this data? There are numerous studies that support independent reading for academic achievement. Students who read independently may also have an advantage as adults in the workplace. Author Stephen D. Krashen writes in The Power of Reading:

What the research tells me [about SSR] is that when children or less literate adults start reading for pleasure… good things will happen. Their reading comprehension will improve, and they will find difficult, academic-style texts easier to read. Their writing style will improve, and they will be better able to write prose in a style that is acceptable to schools, business, and the scientific community. Their vocabulary will improve, and their spelling and control of grammar will improve.

Additionally, high school is not too late to start an SSR program. Author  Steven Gardiner defended the practice when he  responded to questions about his book Building Student Literacy Through Sustained Silent Reading and discussed the use of SSR at the high school level:

On more than one occasion, I’ve started class by simply reading aloud. I didn’t explain what I was doing or why, I just started reading. They may be 15 or 17 years old, but they quickly get quiet and listen, trying to understand what is going to happen next, just like youngsters in story hour. They aren’t too old for reading aloud, and they aren’t too old for SSR. Most students are grateful for the time. When I look at changes in modern society, I understand why.

So do I. Our students occupy a digitally distracting universe: tweeting, texting, tethered to some instant communication that generates a almost compulsive nervous response. Carving out time, 10-20 minutes a class, for quiet SSR is necessary for students who need to focus when they read. Sadly, this may be the only time during a day when students read.

The significance of our efforts to increase our students’ independent and voluntary reading is addressed in the 2007 NEA report To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence:

Voluntary reading involves personal choice, reading widely from a variety of sources, and choosing what one reads. Aliterates, people who have the ability toread but choose not to, miss just as much as those who cannot read at all. Individuals read to live life to its fullest, to earn a living, to understand what is going on in the world, and to benefit from the accumulated knowledge of civilization. Even the benefits of democracy, and the capacity to govern ourselves successfully, depend on reading.

Our practice of  good reading habits,  SSR provided twice weekly with student selected texts, can lead to improved attitudes towards reading, and we now have the data to prove that one academic year of SSR has improved our 9th grade student attitudes towards reading. SSR will be included as an important part of our literacy efforts at other grade levels as well.